Workers Should Be Able to Hear from Both Sides Before Union Votes

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Workers at an Amazon fulfillment center in Albany, New York, opposed forming a union by a nearly two-to-one margin last week. It was the second time in the past year that workers rejected an organizing bid by the nascent Amazon Labor Union. On the sole occasion that the union won, at a Staten Island facility last May, only about 2,650 of the 8,000 workers voted for the union. Since turnout in the election was only 58 percent and unions only have to win the majority of the ballots cast, not a majority of all workers, that was enough to win. 

The unions have blamed their losses on the company requiring workers to attend meetings where management talked against joining unions. The company reportedly warned that a union may not be able to negotiate any better of a deal than the workers have now, but would likely make things between the workers and management more combative. Unions are, after all, prone to conflict.

To labor activists such “captive audience” mandatory meetings constitute union-busting. National Labor Relations Board General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo has asked the full board to outlaw the practice. (The board has thus far not acted on her request.) Congressional Democrats have tried to get rid of them too. The pro-union Protecting the Right to Organize Act would prohibit companies from making the meetings mandatory. The legislation has stalled in the Senate.

There is no good reason why managers shouldn’t be able to make a pitch to workers just like union activists. Collective bargaining is—or at least ought to be—the workers’ choice. They should be able to hear from all sides before they decide.

The meetings frustrate union activists because the company’s arguments often resonate with workers. “Having a union come in and disturb the communication we have with leadership; why have that?” Albany worker Yari Reyes told The Wall Street Journal after last week’s vote. “Bringing a union in would have just divided us more.”

“If anything, I’m concerned a union will take money out of my paycheck,” Dionte Whitehead, another Albany worker, told CNBC. “A union isn’t good for Amazon.”

Notably, there are different rules for the rhetoric that unions can use in these situations. Under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), union activists are given leeway to describe the company or management in harsh terms. It is just understood that union activists’ rhetoric can sometimes get heated. Amazon was forced by the National Labor Relations Board to rehire a worker and union activist it had fired earlier this year because the worker had called a female coworker a series of expletives after she expressed annoyance with his activism. The board determined that the fired workers’ comments were nevertheless protected activities under the NLRA.

Management, by contrast, cannot say anything that could “interfere with, restrain, or coerce employees in the exercise of the rights” they have under the NLRA. Management doesn’t have to intend to violate workers’ rights either. If a worker can reasonably construe something management said or did as a threat, regardless of the employer’s intent, that’s a violation. Employers therefore have to walk a very narrow line.

Earlier this year, union activists surreptitiously recorded one of the Amazon meetings and posted the recording online. The recording revealed two Amazon representatives warning workers that having unions might “disrupt the direct relationship between Amazon and our associates” and that workers might find themselves with reduced benefits and higher health care premiums, according to the website LaborLab. That was apparently as far as it got.

Some union activists boasted that they had turned the meetings to their advantage by crashing the events and challenging the Amazon representatives’ claims. “People pushed back against the anti-union narrative so much they sometimes had to end sessions early, due to workers who weren’t even on the organizing committee in a peripheral way. That’s why we were confident,” activist Justine Medina told In These Times in April.

Yet, these meetings are often the only way for workers to get information about what collective bargaining means for them that doesn’t come directly from labor activists. The fact that companies like Amazon make worker attendance at the meetings mandatory is problematic, since that limits the worker’s own autonomy, but the NLRA also limits the rights of individual workers in several ways that benefit unions. As long as that remains the case, some balance is needed. Letting a company talk to its own workers is pretty minor as such limits go.